Friday, June 27, 2014


my essay from Radio Silence, issue 02, published earlier this year...

Even White Boys Get The Blues: Radiohead’s “Creep” 

One of the late comedian Patrice O’Neal’s most watched videos on YouTube is a short radio interview he did on KITS San Francisco where he dissects the Radiohead song "Creep". He wonders about the strange power “Creep” seems to have over white men of a certain age, speculating that it digs deep into the confusion and angst of Caucasian males in America, perhaps mining some rich seam of inadequacy, helplessness, and loserdom. For O’Neal, “Creep” and the movie Fight Club are the holy grails of contemporary American Whiteness. Black men, O’Neal says, don’t react to “Creep” or Fight Club in this strange obsessive way, but for young white males these two cultural touchstones describe perfectly what it means to be a man in an increasingly complicated, gender-neutral, multi-ethnic world.
           I first saw Radiohead play“Creep” in September 1992 at The Venue Club in Oxford on the same night that parts of the music video were shot. I wasn’t that impressed with the group, who I hadn’t heard of before and who seemed to be rather posh boarding school boys completely out of step with the times. As many of us saw it back it then, real music, authentic music, was the blue-collar stuff we were hearing from Seattle bands such as Nirvana, who had triumphantly closed the Reading Festival a couple of weeks prior. Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke came from different planets. Cobain had been a homeless junkie who lived under a bridge in Aberdeen, Washington, whereas it seemed that the worst thing that had ever happened to Yorke was a bad experience with the bleach bottle in the hairdressing salon.
           It wasn’t until I heard “Creep” again a couple of months later on the BBC that I knew it was going to be a very meaningful song in my life. The DJ said something about it being the “radio edit,” so I went out and bought the single, closed the curtains of my university digs, and listened to it on my Grundig hi-fi. The song begins with Yorke’s whispered vocals:

When you were here before
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so fucking special

And it’s at this point that Johnny Greenwood hits us with a wall of noise from two open fret chords on his distorted electric guitar. The effect is jarring and disconcerting, no matter how many times you hear it. As you’re still recovering, Yorke’s scaldingly existential chorus cuts to the quick of all your teenage/twenty-something/middle-aged angst:

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here

Is this a universal feeling? Almost certainly. One of Mark Twain’s best jokes was to send a telegram to a dozen of his friends that said: “Flee at once. All is discovered.” And of course, as Twain says, they did. When Steve Jobs passed away, the headline in The Onion was the apt: “Last Man in America to Know What the Fuck He Was Doing, Dies.” In 1978 Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “imposter phenomenon” in a paper in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice to describe women in graduate school or white-collar professions who felt as though they were frauds. Healthy majorities of women in every field felt this way, and subsequent studies found virtually the same feeling among American men.
            When “Creep” was released as a single in the U.S., it peaked at number two on the Alternative Modern Rock chart, and the video went into heavy rotation on MTV. The subsequent Radiohead album Pablo Honey was something of a commercial flop in both the U.S. and U.K., and Radiohead’s reputation was not cemented until their two ground-breaking mid-nineties albums The Bends and OK Computer, both of which went multi-platinum. Radiohead became famous for their intellectual, introspective sound and Yorke’s plaintive, wailing vocals.
            When I went to see Radiohead at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre in the summer of 2001, Rolling Stone was calling them “the biggest band in the world” and the NME declared they were “the world’s most important band.” Radiohead’s music was being discussed in serious newspapers and by critics in highbrow venues such as The New Yorker. One thing missing from all this was “Creep.” Somewhere around 1996, Thom Yorke grew sick of the song and so it vanished from Radiohead’s set lists. Despite the pleas from crowds, Radiohead stopped playing “Creep” completely, although occasionally Yorke would tease the audience by humming a bar or two before launching into something else. At the 2001 Red Rocks concert, Radiohead gave what was subsequently called one of their greatest gigs, but of course “Creep” was absent, and I wasn’t the only one who nudged through the traffic jam back to Denver feeling a little disappointed.  
            Yorke wrote “Creep” about a girl he used to follow around at Exeter University. He was a funny-looking kid with a skinny, asymmetric face, and the girl was unimpressed by his moody introspection. He channelled his depression into the song, which was first composed as an acoustic solo piece. The melody is not entirely original, and when it was released as a single, credit was shared with Mike Hazelwood and Al Hammond who wrote the Hollies’ song “The Air That I Breathe.” “Creep” was by no means the first song to deal with social panic, but it was perhaps the first hit since Peggy Lee’s 1969 “Is That All There Is?” to wear its existential colors on its sleeve.
            The second verse is even more wrenching than the first:

I don’t care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice
When I’m not around
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here

The song ends with the girl, who Yorke had been staring at and stalking throughout, running away from him in fear and disgust:

She’s running out the door
She’s running out
She runs, runs, runs…

Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong here

The genius of “Creep” is identifying this common anomie. We’ve all been to that place (the Pitts and Clooneys aside), that moment when our object of desire rejects us, often in a public and humiliating manner. We’ve all felt that the game is rigged against us and the world belongs to a club of the rich and powerful, a club we will never be permitted to join. “Creep” is a song for the kid in the corner with his hoodie up, not sporty enough to hang out with the jocks, not geeky enough to fit in with the nerds. That kid grew up and became us.
            Perhaps as Yorke won more accolades and got more praise from hangers on, he grew uncomfortable singing “Creep.” He didn’t feel like a creep anymore, and he felt like a phoney when he sang it. That changed in the late summer of 2001. My wife and I were in London when we heard that Radiohead were performing a special show for their hometown crowd at South Park in Oxford. Like thousands of ticketless others we took the train there, climbed over the inadequate temporary security fencing and watched the concert in the light English drizzle.
            It was perhaps because of this rain that during a second encore there was an equipment failure and Radiohead were unable to play the song from the album Kid A which they had rehearsed. Yorke turned to Johnnie Greenwood and asked, “Es ist kaput, yah?” Without waiting for a response, he launched into “Creep,” to the amazement and delight of the crowd.
            Steven Dalton of the NME described what happened next: “Everybody within thirty miles of Oxford sings along, soaked to the bone, bonding in the Biblical downpour that even Thom Yorke was powerless to prevent because Radiohead are not gods; but for these two hours, at least, they were godlike.” Since then the song has rotated in and out of Radiohead set lists but it is always a crowd favourite and it always will be. Solace for an alienated teenager picked on at school, solace for a middle-aged man passed over for promotion, solace for someone stood up on a date.
           African-American musical heritage is so rich that a band like Radiohead seems unnecessary for black American males. It was with wry amusement that Patrice O’Neal would watch his white friends freeze and get very quiet when “Creep” came on the radio. For comedic purposes, he pretended not to know why, but like all good observers of the human condition, he knew that there was no real mystery about it: Everyone gets quiet when they’re playing your song.


Unknown said...

I remember a survey of white men maybe ten years ago re their most intense fears: public speaking came in first, and "to be found out" came in second.


Alan said...

Adrian,This feeling of anomie or creepiness starts to recede with a stronger sense of self at a job one likes ,with a woman one loves and with children who annoint you with omnipotent power.However there is that annoying feeling that Grouchy Marx stated that anyplace that would have me is not worth joining.It was described well in "The Hustler"" when he said I'm the best you have ever seen....even if you beat me." Great post.Best Alan

seana graham said...

Adrian, you seem to have been at the right place at the right time far more than you actually credit.

I can't speak to Creep because I'm not a Radiohead follower. But I can relate to the song in the sense that I've never felt like an insider when it comes to the popular music of the moment. Don't know exactly why that is.

Is it just me or does everyone feel that "Is That All There Is?" has somewhat lost its resonance?

Cary Watson said...

Can't say the song does anything for me, but I'm sure Dylan Ebdus from Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude would approve. Many thanks for the tip on Lethem, I'm halfway through Fortress and it's already my book of the year. Best coming of age novel I've read, and it's the one that's closest to my own experiences growing up.

adrian mckinty said...


I think the feeling of anomie never really goes away unless you're in a job that helps people.

adrian mckinty said...


Well this is a 20 year old song so I'm not exactly up with popular trends either!

adrian mckinty said...


Yeah Fortress is great isnt it? I got my wife to read it and she's now teaching it in her Race And Class In American Literature class at Monash University which is a very good thing. She emailed Lethem with one or two questions about the book and its themes and being a decent chap he emailed right back.

adrian mckinty said...


Yeah public speaking, being found out and death are the three greatest fears. Interestingly death is third.

adrian mckinty said...


I'd love to write a little piece on the song Is That All There Is? which has a very strange back story to it. I've had 4 different characters listen to that song in 4 different books now.

It was inspired by a Thomas Mann story. There's a pretty good wiki article about it here:

seana graham said...

Thanks for the link. I hope you get to write it. Ironically, I think I've been taking an is that all there is attitude to Is That All There Is?

The idea of it still seems to me to be the opposite of that Deep Map idea of William Least Heat-Moon's that you brought up awhile ago.

adrian mckinty said...


Yeah it is the opposite in a lot of ways. Least Heat Moon would say that its possible to find something deeply interesting in any place or situation.

Its sort of like the difference between a cat and a dog. Leave a dog at home and he'll get bored and lonesome and start howling, leave a cat and eventually you'll find him up to some really crazy shit. Cats have a way of keeping themselves amused that dogs and most humans dont.

seana graham said...

In a way it's funny that it should be Mann who would write the original story, since he seems like a person who would have had a lot of inner resources. But maybe it's really saying that large seemingly life changing events are rarely quite that. Life changes, but not in that way usually.

adrian mckinty said...


Indeed. The protagonist of Is That All There Is is suffering from Weltschermz and I dont think any amount of minute observation is going to help her. She's just not interested in the silly doings of her fellow human beings anymore.

It reminds me a little of one of my favourite quotes from Heinrich Heine: "Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten, Daß ich so traurig bin..."

I do not know why this is so (or what this can mean), I am so very sad.

And Thomas Mann was surely writing in that tradition.

Alan said...

Adrian,Mann's feelings of "Weltschmertz" is very clear in "Death In Venice".Age,regret and a feeling of the lack of impact of one's actions to produce any meaningful change can easily produce the feeling of "Is that all there is." You are right that this is reduced by a service profession like teaching,medicine or being a caring "First Respnder." Probably now being a sincere advocate for democratic, economic and political change in Ulster/Egypt could produce feelings of total impotency.

seana graham said...

I imagine Obama is feeling this big time in regard to Egypt right about now, Alan.

Veering away from German literature for a moment, I remember watching that long saga they did on Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown on television years ago. I would get exasperated that their viewpoint character, Sarah, was so passive in relation to all that was going on around her. I suspect that now I would have more sympathy with the fact that she was and really could only be a witness to the end of the Raj. But when you're young, you think more things are possible. Which is good, because some things actually are.

Alan said...

Adrian ,Seana,I guess maybe youth is as you say the time when many respond to the "Sirens In The Street"…rather than singing "Bye Bye Miss American Pie."Obama is a decent man who would better serve America in a classroom teaching political theory.Best Alan

seana graham said...

Alan, I'm not saying anything about Obama in particular. I'm saying that any person who thought they would run for president to do something would realize that there are limits to even American power right about now when faced with Egypt.

Alan Glynn said...

Great piece. Love Patrice. Love the song. Multitudes . . .

Anonymous said...

Richard Brautigan said it best those many years ago: "Watched over by machines of loving grace."

adrian mckinty said...

Alan G

Thanks mate.

adrian mckinty said...


Have you seen the Adam Curtis documentary about that idea? Its good.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan, Seana

Its seems to me that the American system of government is working perfectly and exactly as designed: a strong executive completely checked by a strong legislative branch.

The pundits are obsessed by action but the way the US system of government was designed was to operate with the least amount of laws burdening the population as possible: so an administration were not much gets done is exactly with the founders wanted.

seana graham said...

I don't know if this was precisely what the founders envisioned though. I think they probably should have given a little more thought to how to check the influence of money.

But really, I was just meaning that even arguably the most powerful man in the world, at least in terms of foreign policy, must feel impotent when he looks at the debacle in Egypt.

I just happen to be reading Speedboat right now, and was struck by this passage:

"The truth, I would like to say here, is as follows. But I can’t. In some places, it may already have begun, the war of everybody against everybody, all against all. “The Great Game,” the lady philosopher used to say, quoting from Kipling, “is finished when everyone is dead. Not before."

John McFetridge said...

Death probably comes in third on that list because it's going to happen but the other two might be avoided.

I wonder if, as the idea of the world as a rigged game reaches more and more of us, the feelings in Creep will have less of an effect. Don't you first have to believe you have a chance for the realization that you don't to have a real effect? That may be why these are mostly middle-class white people emotions.

seana graham said...

I'd think denial would be the real reason death comes third, John. I also think the order has something to do with how vividly you can imagine something. It's pretty easy to imagine yourself standing stuttering on a stage. The other two are a bit more complex.

adrian mckinty said...


Yeah knowing the game is rigged is oddly liberating because it induces a sense of fatalism.

JMS said...

Adrian - off-topic vis a vis Radiohead, but related to music, this year's Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann took place during August 11-18 in Derry, Northern Ireland.

adrian mckinty said...


A great time to be up north with the Ballycastle Fair.

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Brendan O'Leary said...

Hi from 2014 Adrian. I think I saw your essay when it came out.

When Creep came out, I was too old and my kids were too young. They were more taken with the positivity and snottiness of Oasis.

1994 was another period of slump in my business, a lot of us found ourselves redundant or working back at the bottom of the heap. The song we were more likely to sing was "I'm a Loser baby, so why don't you kill me?" which at least has a jaunty air about it. You can't afford self-pity when people depend on you.

adrian mckinty said...


Yeah I like that song too. Also from around that era: I'm just a teenage dirtbag.

Matt said...

On a sad note, Adrian, I wonder if Michael Forsythe ever got around to watching Across 110th Street.

adrian mckinty said...


Sorry to hear about Bobby Womack. I read his autobiography Midnight Mover. The only bit I remember is when he was staying at the Hotel Cecil in what was basically an apocalyptic war zone and he decides to visit a brothel...

110th St? Good song, pretty good movie, although Manhattan's relentless gentrification has turned it into a real period piece now I'll bet.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Today the Sunday Times put out a list of "50 best thrillers of last five years ". Actually a list of holiday reading suggestions. No McKinty I'm sorry to say. Sorry because I imagine that this kind of list boosts sales , although not as much as it used to I suppose. It mainly sticks to the already popular.

I'll post the whole list later here or on another thread if you have a more appropriate one.

Adrian, the Teenage Dirt Bag/ Malcolm in the Middle thing came out when mine were entering early teens and seemed to resonate well with them.

Brendan O'Leary said...

As mentioned , here is the Sunday Times "50 best from last 5 years" holiday list:


An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (Arrow)
A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (Penguin)
A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming (Harper)
The Expats by Chris Pavone (Faber)
A Deniable Death by Gerald Seymour (Hodder)

Gone by Mo Hayder (Bantam)
61 Hours by Lee Child (Bantam)
Truth by Peter Temple (Quercus)
Alex by Pierre Lemaitre (MacLehose)
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Hodder)

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles (Harper)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Phoenix)
The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn (Pan)
Norwegian by Night by Derek B Miller (Faber)
The Last Child by John Hart (John Murray)

The Carrier by Sophie Hannah (Hodder)
Innocent by Scott Turow (Pan)
Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson (Black Swan)
Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Doubleday)
The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (Orion)

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen (Sphere)
Djibouti by Elmore Leonard (Phoenix)
The Litigators by John Grisham (Hodder)
Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Picador)
Dead Lions by Mick Herron (Soho Press)


Heartstone by CJ Sansom (Pan)
Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves (Pan)
The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson (Faber)
The House at Sea’s End by Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor (Penguin)

Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas (Vintage)
The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach (M Joseph)
Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne (MacLehose)
Splinter by Sebastian Fitzek (Corvus)
The Frozen Dead by Bernard Minier (Minotaur)

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason (Vintage)
Cell 8 by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom (Quercus)
Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdadottir (Hodder)
Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Penguin)
Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder (Phoenix)

The Vault by Ruth Rendell (Arrow)
Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky (Hodder)
W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton (Pan)
August Heat by Andrea Camilleri (Picador)
Hour of the Wolf by Hakan Nesser (Pan)

Night of the Mi’raj by Zoe Ferraris (Abacus)
13 Hours by Deon Meyer (Hodder)
Dogstar Rising by Parker Bilal (Bloomsbury)
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (Serpent’s Tail)
Darkside by Belinda Bauer (Corgi)

I can only assume that Adrian is too established to be a Rising Star, not established enough to be a Classic, and not Brit, Nordic or Euro enough for the others.

adrian mckinty said...


Its a bit of an odd list isnt it? Not a single Mick on there. No Eoin, no Stu, no Brian McG?

If you have a whole separate category for Nordic Noir but not a single Mick on there you really havent been paying much attention to whats really been happening to crime fiction since 2009...

adrian mckinty said...


Its a bit of an odd list isnt it? Not a single Mick on there. No Eoin, no Stu, no Brian McG?

If you have a whole separate category for Nordic Noir but not a single Mick on there you really havent been paying much attention to whats really been happening to crime fiction since 2009...

Brendan O'Leary said...


Yes, it does seem odd.

All I can offer is that (from my somewhat skewed perspective) there is a fixed narrative when it comes to Ireland and they don't know where to place you and your contemporaries.
And they like their crime heroes world-weary not young and fiery.

The Nordic noir popularity seems like a yearning for an alternate Guardianista dreamworld at times.

I strongly suspect your new novel will transcend the consensus.

Still, there are a good few on that list that I will read.